I guess there might not be a specific rule for starting a hotpot. It seems that my family members each possess their own standpoints.
Mom always puts seafood in to boil first — the flavor of them makes the soup brothy. Vegetables come next to absorb these flavors, so the spinach, Chinese cabbage, and potato slices are penetrated with the umami taste of shrimp and clam. Grandma prefers “vegetables first, meat second”. That way, the vegetables will not take on the meat purine that dissolves into the soup along the way.
And I just put in whatever I like first.
However, when sitting together around the pot, we do not elicit a fight between these different standpoints. It has always been too hectic for that. The pot growls, someone says “add some more bamboo shoot slices in there”, we suck in air to escape the spice, my cousins laugh by the window, and there’s never-ending gossip about what’s happening in the neighborhood. The pot at the center brings us together. I always feel like I am trapped in this atmosphere—it wraps me up like a parka in summer.
But I am the willing victim. I hope to see the full bowls of crab sticks, mushrooms, and beef gradually empty, fake a crying face, and turn to shrimp instead. I hope to have someone to sit with in the mist-like water vapor, waiting for the raw ingredients in the pot to be fully cooked.
I grew up loving hotpot not just because it fills me with almost overwhelming warmth, but also because it adds a sense of freedom to eating, the basic activity of human survival. Even the most exquisite dish could probably never satisfy everyone. On a small plate, there is always the possibility that the ingredients inside are loved, but also hated by someone. The diner is caged in what is instead of what could be. It feels like there is no way back once the dish is served, no more possibility, no more discovery.
But hotpot is different. All that is fixed is the pot at the center of the table: the soup base, sauce, and dish ordered all depend on what the diners want. The massive variety of permutations these elements can form is exciting and intriguing—no one could have hotpot the exact same way twice. In the face of this sea, the diner is the master of the wheel, passing through the islands of all these elements; they, like the red push-pins on the map, connected through the strings, form hundreds of ways.
On a Saturday night, my parents and I got in the car and went out to have hotpot. Dad always orders duck intestines, which come dangling on a bamboo stick, with flowers decorating the side. I always felt sorry for hating it despite its white and clean appearance. Mom loves Glebionis coronaria, the indulged green of this interesting vegetable bloomed in the plate it was served with. I saw the water glimmering above. And I could never give up my love for shrimp. In the spicy soup that we all love, everything disappears under the red.
The water started to bubble again—I took out some vegetables.
They melted in my mouth, the freshness cleared the greasy feeling. And I took a shrimp out. It was sweet, along with the salty touch of the sea.
They all taste different, although they are boiled in the same pot of soup. And we all like different things, although we’re bound by the same pot. As I looked at my dad eating his crunchy favorite ingredient, I felt really grateful.
Hotpot gave us the chance to choose, and the order to be together.
Cover photo courtesy of food network